US, Russian troops square off in northeast Syria as Kremlin eyes wider footprint

US-Russian standoff near Derik, Syria, blocks traffic for hours before Russians return to Qamishli.

al-monitor Syrian Kurd Asayish officers stand guard at a security checkpoint in Derik in Syria's Hasakah province, Oct. 31, 2012. Russian and US patrols confronted each other in the area on June 3, 2020. Photo by REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani.

Jun 3, 2020

American and Russian troops reportedly squared off again in northeast Syria today after a Russian convoy ventured into territory controlled by the US-led international coalition against the Islamic State.

The Rojava Information Center reported that a Russian patrol came face-to-face with an American convoy on a road outside the city of Derik, in Syria’s far northeast corner near the Turkish and Iraqi borders. The standoff blocked local civilian traffic for hours, leading local police authorities to try to intervene, Syrian Kurdish journalist Hoshang Hasan reported.

Other reports said the US convoy prevented the Russians from moving into Derik, thus forcing them to turn back to Qamishli, where Russian forces shares a base with troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

At least two helicopters, one Russian and one belonging to the US-led coalition, flew over the scene earlier today, the Rojava Information Center said. The US-led coalition did not return a request for comment by publication time.

Although Moscow hasn't issued a statement on the incident, state-run news agency Sputnik alleged yesterday that a US patrol was turned back at a checkpoint near Tal Tamr, at the edge of an area controlled by the Syrian army.

The standoff is the second reported in the area in just two days; the North-Press Agency said villagers around Derik protested against a Russian patrol Tuesday while a US patrol arrived at the northern entrance to the city to await the Russians. Last week the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Russian military is building a new military base in Qeser Dib, a village outside Derik, potentially posing a challenge to US influence in the area.

The latest standoffs follow reports that Russia is negotiating with Damascus to expand its military basing in Syria.

American and Russian soldiers have shared a series of tense encounters in northeast Syria, prompting US officials to accuse the Kremlin of testing Washington’s resolve. The two sides coordinate regularly about patrols and areas of operation, but American officials have said the Russians deliberately break those agreements.

Russian forces in support of Assad's government moved into northeast Syria last year, following US President Donald Trump’s order to pull out all US troops from the country in October 2019 — a decision Trump later reversed. The Assad regime has vowed to retake the country’s northeast, which is controlled by an alliance of Kurdish-led militias backed by the US-led coalition against the Islamic State.

The rival forces are not enemies in the conflict, but their close proximity has led to violence before. In February, a local man was killed when American soldiers stopped at a Syrian regime checkpoint near Qamishli shot back after coming under fire. In early 2018, Russian and pro-regime forces crossed the Euphrates River in Deir ez-Zor and advanced toward a natural gas field occupied by American soldiers. The United States defended the position with air and artillery strikes, reportedly killing hundreds of pro-regime fighters, including Russian mercenaries.

The Trump administration says it remains in Syria’s northeast to keep the country’s oilfields out of the hands of the Islamic State. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has acknowledged the American presence also is aimed at keeping the oil out of the hands of Russia and the Assad regime, which are seeking revenue streams to help pay for the country’s costly nine-year civil war.

State Department officials are leading an international effort to diplomatically and economically isolate the Assad regime in hopes that Russia will force concessions from the Syrian government in line with reforms demanded by the United Nation Security Council.

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